There has been a lot of discussion in the b’nacle about what the church can do from a practical standpoint to address the thorny issues in church history.  The traditional approach has been to: 1) keep the curriculum uplifting and free from controversy, 2) to never speak ill or contradict leaders of the past or present even if they have been demonstrably wrong, 3) to let FAIR and FARMS apologetics address any tricky issues raised by external critics, and 4) to remind people that “we simply don’t know” when it comes to conclusions about the trickiest issues.
With the internet and ready access to information, the church has now published several in a series of comprehensive articles addressing some of the most difficult issues.  While some have criticized these efforts and others (particularly those who toed a very black and white view) have found them faith-shaking, the articles have been a huge improvement.
Our sister sect, the Community of Christ, has traditionally addressed thorny historical issues by following a list of 9 principles for dealing with church history. Since we are sharing the same set of history, their principles are worth a look.

Church History Principles

  1. Continuing exploration of our history is part of identity formation. As a church we seek always to clarify our identity, message, and mission. In our faith story, we see clearly God’s Spirit giving this faith community tools, insights, and experiences for divine purposes. A people with a shared memory of their past, and an informed understanding of its meaning, are better prepared to chart their way into the future.  (It feels like this is a little too intellectual for us, although I don’t see anything that is directly contradictory to our views.  I think it also implies a consensus-based faith tradition that differs from our authority-based tradition.  In the LDS side of the house, we take our divine instructions pretty literally, and as individuals, we don’t get a vote.)
  2. History informs but does not dictate our faith and beliefs. The foundation and continuing source for our faith is God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. Studying history is not about proving or disproving mystical, spiritual, or revelatory experiences that birth or transform religious movements. (Is this a swipe at the LDS church’s truth claims?) Sound history informs faith (whereas inaccurate history misleads faith in either direction), and healthy faith leads to insights about history (ergo, unhealthy faith leads to misconceptions about history)Theology (too big a word for us – half our membership just tuned out) and faith, guided by the Holy Spirit, must play an important role in discovering the enduring meaning of such events as well as the deeper truths found in them (implying:  not just superficial truths based on an inaccurate understanding of history). Our understanding of our history affects our faith and beliefs. However, our past does not limit our faith and beliefs to what they were historically.  (This last statement holds more true to the CoC than it may to the LDS church.  The LDS church is more reliant on truth claims that are rooted in history.)
  3. The church encourages honest, responsible historical scholarship. Studying history involves related fields. Historians use academic research to get as many facts as they can; then, they interpret those facts to construct as clear a picture as possible of what was going on in the past. This includes analyzing human culture to see how it affected events. Historians try to understand patterns of meaning to interpret what the past means for our future. This process should avoid “presentism,” or interpreting the past based on a current worldview and culture instead of the culture of the time.  (This bias of interpreting the past based on current worldview is at heart of a lot of negative views of history and is a worthwhile caution).
  4. The study of church history is a continuing journey. If we say that a book on history is the only true telling of the story, we risk “canonizing” one version, a tendency we have shown in the past. This blocks further insights from continuing research. Good historical inquiry understands that conclusions are open to correction as new understanding and information comes from ongoing study.  (This is an excellent point that the LDS church could easily adopt).
  5. Seeing both the faithfulness and human flaws in our history makes it more believable and realistic, not less. Our history has stories of great faith and courage that inspire us. Our history also includes human leaders who said and did things that can be shocking to us from our current perspective and culture. Historians try not to judge—instead, they try to understand by learning as much as possible about the context and the meaning of those words and actions at the time. The result is empathy instead of judgment. Our scriptures are consistent in pointing out that God, through grace, uses imperfect people for needed ministry and leadership.  (I love this one, and find it very useful.  However, I think this points to a generation gap that has been discussed elsewhere by the handsome Carter Hall.  There is a bias among the older generations to view flawed heroes as insufficiently heroic.  Baby boomers and onward tend to prefer flawed heroes.  Promoting “perfect” heroes results in disillusionment for these later generations, IMO).
  6. The responsible study of church history involves learning, repentance, and transformation. A church with a mission focused on promoting communities of reconciliation, justice, and peace should be self-critical and honest about its history (of course, these are not the focus of the LDS church.  Instead our verbs are “perfecting, redeeming, proclaiming, and caring” – very action oriented verbs.  Hmmm.  Not a religion of reflection). It is important for us to confess when we have been less than what the gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to be. This honesty prompts us to repent, and it strengthens our integrity. (Again, this is an interesting perspective.  It takes the faults of the organization and personalizes them.  In the LDS church, the tendency is to view sin or flaws as personal failings, not organizational.  We do not internalize the flaws of the organization or personify the organization as something capable of repentance.)  Admitting past mistakes helps us avoid repeating them and frees us from the influences of past injustices and violence in our history. We must be humble and willing to repent, individually and as a community, to contribute as fully as possible to restoring God’s shalom on earth.  (I don’t think this part translates well for us.  This emphasis on communal responsibility and repentance is a bit foreign to the LDS church.  I suppose that’s a byproduct of CoC being more of a consensus / communal authority rather than authoritative/oligarchical.)
  7. The church has a long-standing tradition that it does not legislate or mandate positions on matters of church history. Historians should be free to draw their own conclusions after thorough consideration of evidence. Through careful study and the Holy Spirit’s guidance, the church is learning how to accept and responsibly interpret all of its history. This includes putting new information and changing understandings into proper perspective, while emphasizing the parts of our history that continue to play a role in guiding the church’s identity and mission today.  (This one is interesting.  For one, the LDS church doesn’t really take a direct stand on historical matters.  Richard Bushman and Truman Madsen can write two very different books on the same topic, and the church does not officially endorse either.  Yet we do emphasize lessons that are based on history but only presented with the intention to edify and increase commitment.  If the history is damaging, we do not discuss it in our lessons because it would be counter-productive.  Whatever does not promote the mission of the church is correlated away).
  8. We need to create a respectful culture of dialogue about matters of history. We should not limit our faith story to one perspective. Diverse viewpoints bring richness to our understanding of God’s movement in our sacred story. Of course, historians will come to different conclusions as they study. Therefore, it is important for us to create and maintain a respectful culture that allows different points of view on history. Our conversation about history should be polite and focused on trying to understand others’ views. (I do think this is an area where the LDS church could improve.  We tend to be extremely defensive when confronted with any negative interpretations of our history.  I think we could do better at being polite and focused on understanding while maintaining our own more faithful interpretation of events.  But to do that, the faithful interpretation of events needs to pass muster, which it frequently fails to do.)  Most important, we should remain focused on what matters most for the message and mission of the church in this time.
  9. Our faith is grounded in God’s revelation in Jesus Christ and the continuing guidance of the Holy Spirit. We must keep our hearts and minds centered on God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. As God’s Word alive in human history, Jesus Christ was and is the foundation of our faith and the focus of the church’s mission and message.  (A great wrap up statement for both churches, IMO).
Not even remotely accurate depiction

Are these principles that the LDS church should likewise espouse or are they problematic in their own right?  Would the LDS church have difficulty with some of these principles if put into practice?  Is there a better approach?  IMO, the CoC approach has some good elements we could adopt, but does not directly translate into LDS culture due to the following points:

  • Community vs. authority.  The LDS church doesn’t take doctrines to referendum.  Decisions are made in consensus at the Q15 level, based on prayerful consideration.  If the Q15 don’t agree, status quo prevails.  By contrast, the CoC is more egalitarian in its decision-making, making decisions “by common consent.”
  • Responsibility for the past.  Because the LDS church is more of a top-down organizational church and less of a “faith community” (as evidenced by the fact that the term “faith community” sounds like some sort of PC term for a free-love hippie commune to most LDS ears) there is no group ownership for mistakes of past individuals, even generally among the leadership, but certainly not among the membership.  Passages that reflect this POV don’t resonate for that reason.
  • Directness.  The LDS church definitely doesn’t favor this kind of direct approach that ties our hands.  While the CoC talks and writes about openness and change, creating collateral materials that can be reviewed time and again, the LDS church prefers to minimize collateral.  Even the collateral that exists (, Gen Conf talks, etc.) is often subtly contradictory and written from contrasting viewpoints that enable multiple interpretations, creating a pantheon of doctrinal viewpoints.
  • Intellectual approach.  There are a few church leaders who favor an intellectual approach and who would find these principles appealing; yet, the style of these principles and the ideology seems like it might be inaccessible or off-putting to many lay members and leaders of the much larger LDS church.
Mansplaining in Nauvoo. “Joseph, we just invited you hoping you would bring the cookies.”

Here are some principles or talking points that I would suggest for the LDS church:

  • All history is biased.  Historical elements in scripture are also biased by authors, cultural markers, and limited understanding.  Church history is similarly biased.  Understanding history requires a respect for the inherent biases in what we are reading, whether those biases are in favor of or against the church or an individual.  And our understanding of history is biased by our personal experiences, our views, and time in which we live.
  • Understanding history can provide insight.  We can better understand patterns that influenced behavior and that tend to repeat over time within a culture.  We can empathize with our predecessors; our hearts are turned to our fathers and mothers in reviewing their experiences.  We are given countless examples that illuminate our own path, either as cautionary tales or as role models and most often as both.
  • Church history is still being written.  Although divine instruction is timeless, our ability to understand it can shift over time and the relevance of different instructions can change as circumstances change.  We should be mindful of the temporal biases inherent in our human understanding as we strive to follow God’s will and comprehend our common history.
  • Personal experience leads to faith.  We encourage church members to follow the spirit and to prayerfully seek instruction from Heavenly Father.  This type of humble truth-seeking can help us avoid errors in discernment and criticism of others that can lead to self-justification and sin.
  • Our aim is to lead people to Christ.  While history can inform us and provide insight, ultimately it is through seeking a personal relationship with Christ and following His teachings that we grow spiritually and achieve our potential as sons and daughters of God.  What others have written or experienced, even if found in scripture, is less important than having a personal relationship with the savior.

I believe these points are consistent with the church’s new approach to dealing with the difficult issues, and yet the unreadiness of some of our members and leaders to handle the revised approach is something I didn’t anticipate. The principles that have created this brittleness seem to be:  focus on obedience and authority as the yardstick of orthodoxy, anti-intellectualism, pitting science against faith, poor scholarship among the correlation committee, and manuals that haven’t been refreshed for too long.  Now that the essays are coming out, the next step is to fully integrate them into the curriculum (easier said than done) and to help members be familiar with their contents, regardless their level of education.  Right now, they seem to be largely the purview of those seeking more information, which is probably not the majority of members.